Delhi's female cabbies
Go behind the wheel in India's
fearless all-female Taxi fleet
Madhu Varma shows up at my door promptly and on time—an anomaly in India, where locals are notoriously late.
She's also a rarity on Delhi’s traffic-clogged roads. As we set out, she’s spotted by nearby rickshaw drivers and chauffeurs—all male, all wondering what a woman is doing behind the wheel of a taxi.
In India’s capital territory, you’re not likely to find many, if any, female taxi drivers. For Delhi’s young professional women, that’s become a problem. Last year a male Uber driver raped a female passenger, generating a fiery debate about the safety of women on New Delhi’s roads.
Most households have a personal driver, if they can afford it. Otherwise, women used to have to select from auto rickshaws, taxis, Meru Cabs, or OlaCabs, all of which came with a male driver.
Then Sakha Cabs arrived in 2008, getting more attention in recent years. It has a small fleet of women drivers strictly for female passengers. Varma, 25, has been driving with Sakha for four years. She joined the company as a private chauffeur to a South Delhi household. A yearlong contract turned into one-and-a-half years. The lady of the house was quite happy with her services and keen to keep her.
"Ma'am didn’t want to let go of me," she jokes.
All Sakha girls start out as chauffeurs to households before tackling the taxi business. It's a training period, Varma explains, and a test to see if they’ll be able to handle the stresses of driving in Delhi’s chaotic traffic.
Varma used to work in a beauty parlor, a job she says paid more and required fewer hours. But she was always fond of driving and was eager to do it. Family members—particularly her brother—weren’t thrilled. She signed up and did the training for Sakha without his knowing.
Her husband, though, has been supportive. "His thinking is really different," she says, as we hit bumper-to-bumper traffic, perhaps because he’s a chauffeur himself. He drives a Mercedes for a well-to-do South Delhi family; they’ve even asked him to go to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where their daughter lives and drive her car.
Varma isn’t interested in leaving Delhi, despite its flaws. She feels comfortable here. “I would feel odd being outside India,” she says. “Delhi traffic is bad—terrible, actually.” But it’s not enough to send her away.
She works six days a week, at times driving through the night into the morning. “You’d be amazed at the traffic at one in the morning. I think there’s just as much traffic in the middle of the night as there is during the day in Delhi,” she says, laughing.
That’s hard to believe as we sit in gridlock. Varma starts quizzing me about driving in the U.S., where the road is “flipped,” as she puts it. Indians drive on the left, a leftover of British rule. Some would say poorly. “If you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere in the world,” the joke goes. Driving requires you to navigate a maze of bullock carts, scooters, motorbikes, Tata Indicas, and auto rickshaws. According to the Indian government, nearly 8.5 million private vehicles are on the roads of the city; that’s not including commercial vehicles such as taxis, which add another 350,000.
Women in particular are not respected as drivers. Varma finds this irritating. "That's their misunderstanding. Girls can do anything. What can they not do?" she asks. Still, it’s not an easy job for a woman, she acknowledges. When she’s on duty, she has to find places to take a break, use the restroom, get some food. Longer shifts can easily last up to 12 hours, depending on the client’s schedule.
Sakha Cabs, however, is a female empowerment company, she says. It doesn’t just provide her with a $150 paycheck every month but also supports drivers if they have family issues or need further training.
Varma has tried to talk some of her female friends into becoming taxi drivers—with little success. “Even if the girl wants to, oftentimes families have an issue with it,” she says. That’s where Sakha offers support. “For a girl who is going out of the house for the first time, it’s a big step.”
Meru Cabs and Ola Cabs, two of the largest cab companies in India and Uber’s primary competitors in the city, have also started hiring female drivers after last year’s incident. But Varma isn’t interested in those companies: “It’s not about money. It’s about safety.” Sakha ensures that its drivers will only have female passengers. Meru and Ola leave it open-ended: Female drivers can take on male and female customers.
That, Varma says, is not a smart move. “You don’t know the intentions of a man sitting in your car,” she says, braking at the stoplight. A rickshaw wallah peers in, intrigued by the decal on her taxi: “Cabs for women by women.” She doesn’t notice him.
“These days, one out of a hundred boys in Delhi are nice,” she says.
That's why she turned down an offer from Ola Cabs, which offered her higher pay ($230 a month) and the flexibility to start at her convenience. She’s not enticed by the pay, though, when safety is such a big concern.
Even now, she gets men who see her driving on the roads and phone in to Sakha’s call center, requesting a ride with her. Their requests are politely declined. "See, if we work for another company, we would feel alone. But at Sakha, we feel like there is someone behind us," she says.
Varma drives with focus; her eyes are fixated on the car in front. I ask if she’s ever had an accident. Yes, she nods: “It happened once. Touch wood that no one was hurt.” The car’s bonnet hit the center divider, she recalls, causing smoke to billow out of the vents. “I was scared.”
I ask her if driving scares her today. “Not at all. When I started I used to be scared, especially being out at night.” Now, Varma exudes confidence. As she turns into a side street with a taxi stand at the corner, a dozen eyes follow. All the taxi drivers, all male, sitting by their cars, playing cards to kill time, pop their heads up. They watch her carefully as she backs into the driveway to drop me off. The card game has come to a halt.
Varma continues to chat. “Women should do what they want,” she says. “Not what someone tells them is appropriate for them or what society thinks.” She takes my payment and is on her way. She’s got another client to get to. She has little time for judgment.
As she drives off, the taxi drivers take another peek before diving back into their game.